Sunday, April 23, 2006

Entertainment is our Youth Program (encore)

[Note: this is a reprise of an earlier article which disappeared mysteriously. It won't be exactly the same, but I'll try to hit the same points. Some contents may have settled during shipping. Batteries not included...]

I just received my district newsletter from a former Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) district in which I lived. The front page splash is:

District Youth Gathering Establishes Attendance Record

which is, of course, consistent with the districts' almost obsessive-compulsive focus on numbers. But the part that I found most poignant involved an assessment by a lady DCE (Director of Christian Education) who wrote:

Over-all the event scored another high approval rating from the participants, enjoying great Christian fellowship and excitement about the high energy worship celebrations led by our gathering band FUSEBOX and an awesome Servant Event.

Key words here include:

"Christian fellowship" - which doesn't mean fellowship in the biblical sense (koinonia - a sharing of Christian doctrine bound together in a sacramental communion), rather this is a euphemism for "having fun."

"excitement about the high energy worship celebrations" - which doesn't refer to the miracle of the forgiveness of sins when a pastor exercises his divine office, opening the gates of heaven unto eternity (boring!), nor does it mean the breathtaking miracle of the physical presence of our blessed Lord during the Sacrament of the Altar to bring us eternal life, salvation, and conquest over sin, death, and the devil (you've got to be kidding!). No, these adjectives refer to the entertainment quality of the rock band.

To paraphrase a beer commercial: "It's all about the entertainment."

This is what is front and center in our approach to bringing Christ and the Gospel to young people. Entertain them. Style over substance. Does FUSEBOX share our particular confessions of the Christian faith? It's a fair question, given that they led the hymnic portions of the Divine Services. On their website, they speak of "making a decision for Christ" - which is a common way of speaking for many Protestants, but is not the way we Lutherans describe the divine operation of grace.

In fact, we speak of grace as "divine monergism" - a work (energy) that is done only (mono) for us by God (divine). The lady DCE is not using the word "energy" to describe the miraculous work of a gracious God for unworthy sinners. No, once again, she's talking about the entertainment factor of the rock band.

Now, please don't get the idea that Father Hollywood does not approve of fun and loud music. Far from it. "Back in the day," my friends and I were "regulars" in the heavy metal bars in Akron, Ohio. Our friends in the local band U.S. Metal used to enjoy having us hop on stage to sing Kiss and Judas Priest songs with them (as a side note, the band's lead singer went on to actually become Judas Priest's lead singer - I considered showing up at their Fort Wayne show in my clerical collar when I was a seminarian - get it? Priest? Anyway, I didn't go. I probably had too much homework and not enough money...).

My friends and I listened to the old classic rock from the 60s and 70s, and spent all our money on concerts and albums of our favorite "mullet rock" bands from the 80s: Cinderella, Poison, Whitesnake, Led Zeppelin, Warrant (who also came from Akron), the Kinks, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Steppenwolf, Dokken (who?), Aerosmith, Triumph, Rush, Alice Cooper (who is today a Christian), Van Halen, Metallica, the Who, the Stones, Quiet Riot, Pink Floyd, Twisted Sister, Black Sabbath (with and without Ozzy), Deep Purple, etc. etc.

I still love the old rock classics, and there is a lot of newer stuff (I really enjoy Three Doors Down and Foo Fighters) that is worth cranking up nice and loud on the way to work (which, these days, means in the baby-seat-and air-bag-equipped super-safe-mini-van on my way to the church office).

On another side note, Mrs. Hollywood was also quite a headbanger in those days. She rode the tour bus with Iron Maiden, and was even backstage with Metallica (she brought her mother, a very proper former nun who is quite the Pink Floyd fan - and the pictures are priceless).

So, it's not the rock and roll I object to. But I do think "Christian rock" is a little like "lite beer." It's never really as good as what it tries to imitate. But more troublesome than the esthetic issue is the doctrinal issue. Most "contemporary Christian music" is at best very weak and banal theologically, and worse, is often downright heretical. Music is powerful, and the early Lutherans realized the ability of church hymnody to proclaim the Gospel. It's why the Lutheran Church is sometimes called the Singing Church. It's not for nothing that Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran music director. Music used in worship is nothing to trifle with.

I became a Lutheran when I was at the very pinnacle of my rock and roll years - my teens and early twenties. I would come to church on Sunday on my motorcycle (which had a stereo with a tape deck) playing Motley Crue or the Who. I would take off my helmet, and my shoulder-length locks would fall out around my leather jacket. I loved Sunday mornings, because I would leave behind the old world and walk into a new world. We chanted the Mass from page 15, sang hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal led by a traditional choir and a medieval sounding pipe organ. The service was by no means a high liturgy, but it was a traditional liturgy. Reverent and ancient. There was no rock and roll to be found. It was wonderful. It transported me to heaven. This was not the concert hall, the basketball court, or my best friend's back yard.

Later on, a "contemporary" service was added, and it just sounded lame. I avoided it like the plague - which may have seemed odd to some folks.

After the traditional worship service was over, I would leave the holy sanctuary and return again to the secular world of the parking lot. I would put on my helmet, pray for divine protection, cross myself, put the Motley Crue tape back in, push the ignition button, and zoom off.

So, once again, I by no means gainsay rock and roll - but it has no place in divine worship. We do not go to Divine Services for entertainment.

This is what is missing in today's secular and ecclesiastical culture: contextual propriety. These days, what is considered acceptable in the locker-room is likewise seen as proper in the boardroom or classroom (even among politicians coming from religious services). The manner of speaking to one's friends in a bar is now considered equivalent to the way we speak in formal settings or to superiors. The way one dresses at a barbecue is now considered fine for Sunday church services. The manner of walking and carrying oneself while mowing grass is now considered proper as conduct in the sanctuary - even for altar boys and pastors. Music that is proper while washing one's car is now considered meet right and salutary in a worship setting.

We live in an age where people consider it acceptable to be wed in shorts or shod in flip-flops when invited to the White House.

The reason this is harmful to the church is that we now no longer confess the holiness of the physical space of the church sanctuary. Everything and every place have become ordinary and common - which is the definition of profane. The altar is merely a table - no need to reverence it. In fact, we can put stuff on it when it's not being used on Sunday. No reason to treat the chancel and sanctuary with any special respect - it's just a place where something merely ritualistic happens - God is everywhere, right? There is nothing holy, nothing set-apart, no other-worldliness about the nave of a church. Just who would want such a change in our church's culture? (Hmmm. Can't you just see the Church Lady from SNL cocking an eyebrow and asking that question? Could it be...?).

And in our zeal to bring young people to church we are willing to sacrifice the holiness of our altars upon another altar - the Altar of Entertainment. Being entertained is our new sacrament, rock musicians are our priests, and having fun is our new High Mass.

This what has led to abominations like having parts of the liturgy "rapped" and children hurling rolls of toilet paper as Holy Communion is being distributed at our national youth gatherings. No contextual propriety, no sense of the sacred, no realization that a miracle is happening, that God is physically present doing his saving work through Word and Sacrament. No, instead it's all about the 'high energy" entertainment. Like Jennifer Anniston's boss in Office Space said, "It's about fun." That about sums up 21st century American religion.

There truly are two opposite paradigms about worship operating in the world today - and it transcends confessions and denomination.

I think of this every time I give pastoral care to the sick and dying - as I did these past few weeks as a family patriarch faded away, finally leaving this life for the glory of heaven. In visiting this close-knit family, I was able to bring them the comfort of the Gospel and the assurance of the resurrection - not because I'm such a great and inspiring guy (I certainly am not), but because I brought them the Gospel. I vested in churchly garb, and we celebrated the Mass in the hospital. The family communed together, spoke the liturgy together, recited the creed together, confessed their sins together, prayed the Lord's Prayer together, and sang hymns together. And now, when they commune together on Sunday mornings, they do so with their unseen and yet still beloved husband, father, and grandfather who is now part of the Church Triumphant. What comfort! What peace!

Had they not had the liturgy to fall back on, what would I have had to offer them? Entertainment? A FUSEBOX song? Some jokes? Meaningless fluff-songs like "Shine, Jesus, Shine"? People who are dying (and their relatives who are suffering with them) don't need entertainment - they need the Word of God. You cannot get that only at the death bed. We prepare for the death bed every Sunday as we sing the liturgy. As the Psalmist writes: "O Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise," the Lord Himself tells us what to say.

I do wonder what will pastors do a half century from now for the kids who are at LCMS youth gatherings today. For there will come a time when they will be on the death bed. Shall we sing them long-forgotten rock songs and do a little liturgical dance? Will they even know the liturgy? Will the pastors even know the liturgy? Will the church even have a liturgy? What we teach them today is all they will have then. Scary thought.

As I said, I still listen to rock and roll. But in church, I want (no, I need, I yearn for) something of substance, something deeper and more profound than shallow entertainment, something transcendent. There is nothing that proclaims the Gospel with more dignity, reverence, and clarity than Gregorian chant and sacred chorales. This kind of music isn't entertaining, but then again, Jesus never claimed to be David Lee Roth or Jay Leno.


Pastor Beisel said...

Father Hollywood--Amen to all of that! I agree that people have no sense of context. They think that they should be able to "say a few words about brother John" at his funeral service when it would be much more appropriate to save it for the luncheon.

And these children in the picture, we get fliers for these kind of "youth events" all the time at our church. I bring them home and show my wife and each time she says: "I would NEVER allow my daughter even to talk to one of those guys". They look like hoodlums and gangsters, rather than respectable young men. She's right! And these are the people we invite to our National Gatherings. Pity.

Peter said...

There's a great scene in "King of the Hill," where Hank, listening to a Christian rock band, comments, "You're not making Rock'n Roll better. You're making Christianity worse."

E said...

Your closing paragraph hits home. I come from the UMC tradition (mom was a UMC pastor) and now attend a non-denominational Christian church (where my wife was a member prior to our getting together). I find the preaching here wonderful. That being said, I find myself feeling that I am being entertained more than I am worshiping God and giving thanks for His saving grace through Christ. I find most contemporary worship music to lack any theological depth. Give me the old Charles Wesley hymns any day of the week!
I also miss having any type of liturgy or any following of the church year. Spiritually I have to go elsewhere to have an opportunity to prepare for the holy days of the church. For example: the months between Christmas and Easter, I believe, need to have significant time spent on the physical life of Christ leading up to and including His death and resurection. When Easter Sunday came this year there seemed to be no preparation for the glorious occasion of His rising from the dead. It was just another contempary style "worship" service with all the "musical" trimmings.

And don't get me started on how the congregants dress much less the ministers!

Now that I have gone on too long...thanks for a great post. :)

E said...

oops...forgot to sign my comment...


Father Hollywood said...

Pr. Beisel:

Interesting that you should mention eulogies. The same article mentions that at the worship service, they had a tribute to a lady who had worked in "youth ministry" for many years. I almost quoted that and commented on it as well, but it would have seemed like I was just piling on. Sometimes I read these district publications and think to myself: "Just once they will actually proclaim the Gospel and do something right, and then our blessed Lord will return." It really is that bad sometimes. As Fr. Duddlewell, the pastor of St. Jude's in the BBC comedy once said: "'Tis enough to make St. Jude himself despair."

Father Hollywood said...


Mike Judge (the creator of "King of the Hill" and "Beavis and Butt Head", and the writer of "Office Space") may have the gift of prophecy. He is uncannily right about a lot of things.

Thanks for this quote. It's a keeper.

Father Hollywood said...


Thanks for your insightful commentary. I suppose the change in the worship paradigm was inevitable. In the secular world, we are pretty much spoiled. Very few people lack what were once luxuries: air conditioning, TV (even cable these days), ice cream on demand, more kinds of candy and junk food than can be imagined, etc.

Anything for our comfort and ease is within our grasp. Why should church be any different? Make me laugh. Make me feel good. Tickle my itching ears - or else I'll go elsewhere. Give me prosperity, name it and claim it, and rock and roll!

But just as every king and billionaire is destined to lie in a bed in a hospital gown with tubes stuck in them, his wealth no longer able to buy another minute of life or another toy to comfort him - so too will we all reach such a state. Death is truly the great equalizer - and there are others as well: sickness, death of loved ones, disappointments, loss of jobs, etc.

In times of suffering and crosses that come to all of us, we need something more than Joyce Meyer bragging about her private jets or a sappy Christian band with hands raised in the air with big plastic smiles crooning "Shine, Jesus, Shine."

I just spent the last three weeks with a family as their father and grandfather gradually went downhill and died. He was the great patriarch, beloved, and the anchor of the family. In my visits to the hospital, we regularly confessed our sins together, prayed the Lord's prayer, recited the Creed, and took Holy Communion together. The liturgy is such a treasure to this family. It brought the comfort of Christ to his widow, children, and grandchildren.

His body will be in the church tonight, and his funeral rites and burial will be tomorrow. Entertainment has no place in the face of death, and it would only cheapen the wonder and joy of the resurrection.

I sometimes wonder how Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn or Joyce Meyer would conduct a funeral. Is God punishing those who get sick, those who lose their wealth, those who die (which is eventually every last one of us)?

As much as I enjoy my rock and roll (and my ice cream on demand), give me a healthy dose of Bach and Gregorian Chant when the chips are down. Sing the Nunc Dimittis and the Te Deum with me. And preach Christ at my funeral! Ultimately, worship isn't about us (thank God!), but about Him!

If we really believe Satan lurks about us like a lion seeking prey, and if we really believe that we are surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, if we really believe Jesus is present with us - my goodness! Entertainment would be the very last thing on our minds. We'd be like the prophet in Isaiah 6, or like Moses in Exodus 3.

Shame on those who lead the young people astray by turning worship into a party! What does our Lord warn in Matt 18:6?

Rosko said...

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